A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.
It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.
Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.
When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.
These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.
“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).
By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.
(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.
Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).
Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.
It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.
(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)
(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.
A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.
Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.
A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!
(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.
A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.
The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.
Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.
(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage
If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.
By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”
The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…
…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?
Welsh dragon versus yours truly.
NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.